Welcome to the Torah Study for Your Soul, contemplative study of Hasidic texts. This week we begin our study of the contemporary Hasidic text Netivot Shalom, by the Slonimer rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky z"l. We are happy to provide this to you as an introduction to the Institute for Jewish Spirituality Ongoing Text Study Program. You will receive it free through the first five weeks of the Torah reading cycle, after which it will be sent only to those who have subscribed to the program.
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Each week, the text can be read in this email, or it can also be accessed as a clean Word document by clicking the link at the top of the page. I will present the lessons using the classical PaRDe"S structure in this manner: Peshat will be the translation of the text; Drash will be a commentary, unpacking the core elements of the lesson; Remez will be a series of reflection questions for discussion or personal inquiry; Sod will be additional commentary, expanding on key concepts, and offering suggestions for personal practice and application.
I have prepared an introduction to Netivot Shalom
, giving the background of the text and a bit of the history of the Slonim lineage. You can access it here.
You may wish to purchase a copy of Netivot Shalom on the Torah to accompany your study, as we are unable to provide the Hebrew text here (due to copyright protections). You might also wish to purchase the two volumes on the Mo'adim and Middot as well. Here are some links to online sellers where you can purchase book.Nehora
I have also had positive experiences purchasing books from Biegeleisen Books in Brooklyn. Their phone number is (718) 436-1165, and you can purchase the books with a credit card.
I look forward to studying with you this year, engaging with R. Shalom Noach as teacher and companion in deepening our spiritual lives. Be well.
s.v., vayehi or (pg. 17)
"When God began to createdheaven and earth-the earth was unformed and void (tohu vavohu), with darkness over the surface of the deep and a spirit ofGod sweeping over the water-God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light" (Gen. 1:1-3)
The commentator Keli Yakar and others have asked why Scripture reports what took place before the creation of light. In none of the other acts of creation is there mention of what preceded them, only that God made them. It is only here that the Torah reports "the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a spirit ofGod sweeping over the water", and it is unclear why. Further, regarding the "unformed (tohu)", Rashi explicates: "it means amazement and shock - for a person is stupefied and shocked looking at it". What is the source of the stupefaction and shock, and what is the significance of the response "God said, 'Let there be light'"?
We can interpret this in terms of spiritual practice. The Torah teaches, right from the start, that "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth", that Creation itself is divided into two realms: "heaven", those supernal elements pertaining to the soul; "earth", mundane affairs pertaining to the body. Now, "the earth was unformed and void", which is to say, the earthy things (ha-inyanim ha'artzi'im) in which we are immersed lead us to stupefaction and shock, causing us to lose our settled mind. This is the strategy of the yetzer hara to weaken us...: to confuse us by means of our mundane affairs, leading us to complete darkness. The worst of it all is that we become confused, as our master, R. Moshe of Kobrin taught: all the world's wealth is not equal to even one hour of a balanced mind and a quiet spirit....
The significance of the phrase "the earth was unformed and void" is that all mundane and earthy matters lead us to tohu vavohu,stupefaction and shock. It is not merely those earthy things that are proscribed by Torah that afflict us, and those permitted neither helping nor hurting. Rather, "the earth was unformed and void": everything of our material existence - even the permitted - leads to tohu vavohu. The only response is what follows: "God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light", that God's light might save us from the confusion of the earthy. When God's light enlightens us we are able to raise up all our earthy engagements in divine service. This is as the Maggid of Mezritch taught on the verse "[How many are the things You have made, O YHVH; You have made them all with wisdom;] the earth is full of Your creations (mal'ah ha'aretz kinyanekha)" (Ps. 104:24): "even the most earthy things are filled (ha'artziyut melei'ah) with aspects by which it is possible to acquire God thereby (lik'notekha bahem)"....
The Zohar (II 148b) teaches that the light of the first day was hidden away, but not completely. If it were completely hidden, the world itself could not exist for a moment. Rather, it was hidden as a seed which, obscured in the earth, produces seeds and fruits, and through it the world is sustained. This means that God's light is always present, even if it is hidden. But, the whole of creation is made up of earthy, material things which would, of themselves, lead us astray. The response is to bask in the divine light that is always present in that very creation.
Our master, R. Noach of Lakhovitz commented on our verse: "And he said (vayomer)" - whenever we might be shrouded in darkness, we are to say - "God: let there be light. Master of the Universe, I am shrouded in darkness! Light my gloom!" Then, in response "there will be light (yehi or)"; the blessed Holy One will help us and bring us light, revealing the light that was hidden at the beginning to be ready for the one who seeks it. Similarly, our master the Saba Kadisha of Slonim (R. Abraham Weinberg, the first) taught on the verse: "I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob" (Ex. 6:3), on which Rashi glosses "to the Patriarchs (haAvot)", which seems not to clarify or add to our understanding of the verse. The interpretation: Avot should be understood in the sense of desire. "I appeared to the avot": the blessed Holy One appears to those who desire and seek God. The light was hidden from those who don't want it, but those who ask of God "let there be light" will experience "and there was light". Without that light we would not be able to maintain our spiritual lives for even one moment....
This explains the teaching in the Zohar (I 21a) that on the holy Shabbat the light of the first day that was hidden away is revealed, shining and illuminating Shabbat. On Shabbat we have the power to raise up our earthiness and material lives. R. Moshe of Kobrin interpreted the phrase (in the Shabbat hymn Barukh El Elyon Asher Natan Menuchah) "The Sabbath Queen is holy for you (kodesh hi lakhem Shabbat hamalkah)": on the day of the Sabbath Queen, even those matters that pertain only to "you (lakhem; i.e. us)" are holy. Even through our mundane, private, earthy affairs we can experience holiness, and bask in the light of the first day, God's light shining in all our affairs.
In this (relatively) brief teaching R. Shalom Noach touches many of the themes that he identifies as primary concerns of the Slonim tradition: faith in God's goodness; the importance of prayer; the conflict of "good" and "bad" (as spiritual and material/earthy); the value of Torah study for spiritual awareness; the centrality of Shabbat. As is characteristic, he cites leading lights in the Slonim lineage to build his argument, as well as rabbinic sources and the Zohar. As is the case when studying any text, we should not see his use of earlier sources simply as a process of "stringing texts together". Rather, R. Shalom Noach processes, interprets and shapes these sources to create his message. So, for instance, the citation of the saba kadisha on Ex. 6:3 is reported in Torat Avot in the name of R. Moshe of Kobrin, with a parenthetical insertion to identify how avot signifies "desire (ratzon)": Gen. 24:5, "What if the woman does not consent/wish (toveh) to follow me back to this land". But, more, the teaching there concludes in Hebrew and Yiddish: "'I appeared to the avot': I appear to those who wish/desire me (ani mitra'eh tzu di vos villen mir)". The thrust of the Yiddish villen is much more wish or desire than the mevakesh that R. Shalom Noach reports in his interpretation. It serves his purpose to make the wish or desire into a prayer of seeking.
We have not translated here one of the concluding points in the Hebrew, based on the Tanhuma (Noah, 2) that argues that the light of the first day is available only to those who labor in the study of the Oral Torah. Its presence certainly reflects the Slonim tradition, but it is also suggested by one of the passages he cited from the Zohar (II 148b/149a):
It is written: "And God said, 'Let there be light', and there was light" (Gen. 1:3). Said R. Yose: "That light was hidden and kept in store for the righteous in the world to come, as already stated; for it is written, 'A light is sown for the righteous' (Ps. 97:11; cf. Gen.R. 12:6); for a true tzaddik it was hidden away. That light functioned in the world only on the first day of Creation; after that it was hidden away and no longer functioned". R. Yehudah said: "Had it been hidden away altogether, the world would not have been able to exist even for one moment. But it was hidden like a seed which generates others, seeds and fruits, and the world is sustained by it. There is not a day that something does not emanate from that light to sustain all things, for it is with this light that the Holy One nourishes the world. Moreover, wherever the Torah is studied by night, a little thread of this hidden light emerges and is drawn down upon those who are absorbed in their study. Thus Scripture says: 'By day may YHVH command His loving care, and at night His song is with me, [a prayer to the God of my life]' (Ps. 42:9); this has already been expounded (cf. Hagigah 12b). On the day the Tabernacle was set up below, what is written? 'Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it [and the Presence of YHVH filled the Tabernacle]' (Ex. 40:35). What was that cloud? It was a thread from the side of the primordial light, which issued forth joyously on all and descended into the Tabernacle below. After the first day of Creation it was not revealed, but it performs a function, which is to renew daily the work of Creation".
The light made available to those who study Torah is a "thread of light", which in its source in the Talmud is a "thread of love (chesed)". The light in the Tabernacle was the cloud of God, the Shekhinah. The Shekhinah and God's love are always present to sustain the world, and those in it. Those who study Torah bring this light into the world. Yet, based on the Tanchuma, R. Shalom Noach emphasizes that those who labor in the study of Torah do so "in darkness", with great suffering and loss of sleep, wearing themselves out with their labors. Indeed, in the Tanchuma, the reward for this strenuous endeavor is in the world to come, rather than in the revelation of the light in this world, in this life, much less as an experience nightly of a thread of God's love extending to those who labor in Torah.
There is much in this lesson that R. Shalom Noach has to teach us, and it is richer when we witness how he has worked with his sources.
- What do you find disturbs your "balanced mind and quiet spirit"? How, if at all, are these factors grounded in your "earthy/material" experience?
- How do you understand the connection between being able to pray "God, let there be light!" and the experience of relief from your personal darkness?
- What have you found, in your personal practice of Shabbat, that helps you touch the light of the first day of creation? What blocks it from you?
In getting to know R. Shalom Noach, we are first struck by the forceful manner in which he sets up the seeming dichotomy of "earthy/eretz" and "spiritual/shamayim", of body and soul. Much of early Hasidic teaching seeks to overcome this divide, to negate the dualities that impede unification with and attachment to God. Yet, this is not universal. We can look back to Peri Ha'aretz, the teachings of R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, (the teacher/colleague of R. Abraham of Kalisk) an antecedent to the Karlin-Lakhovitz-Karlin-Slonim lineage for an alternative perspective. R. Menachem Mendel constantly refers to the lowliness of human existence due to its earthy, corporeal nature, much as we hear in our lesson.
Yet, R. Shalom Noach undermines this duality at the same time the he sets it out. That is, despite the presence of the human body and its needs and desires, it has access to and can bask in the divine light that is constantly present. Spiritual practice and training can negate the dichotomy of body and soul, allowing each of us to become whole in our entire beings. We see this in his conclusion regarding Shabbat. R. Moshe of Kobrin does not say that on Shabbat we lose our "selves (lakhem)", but that it becomes holy. All of our activities on Shabbat - including eating and drinking and sexual relations - can become fully spiritual experiences.
Further, R. Shalom Noach identifies clearly the source of that which leads to the perception of duality and dichotomy: the confusion that arises from our attachment to, desire for and immersion in the things of this world. We need not read this as negation of the physical world. Rather, from a mindfulness perspective, this is the experience of ignorance. When we identify our thoughts with reality, when we take the immediate experience of our bodies without reflection, we are bound to be pushed and pulled in all directions. We will flee from pain and run to perceived comfort. We will hold fast to that which we desire, hoping it will be with us always, and grieve when it changes, as it must. Mindfulness practice helps us to witness the workings of our minds and hearts without identifying with them. We are able to feel fully the desires of our hearts, to remain fully connected to fear, anger, grief and yearning, without these feelings being all that is, "true" for all times and all purposes. Mindfulness practice is a means to emerge from the darkness of our daily routine, to experience the light of freedom, of awareness. Mindfulness is a means of developing, and returning over and over again to, a balanced mind and a quiet spirit.
Again, it may appear the form of prayer that R. Shalom Noach presents in our lesson reinforces a dualistic theology or experience - where we, shrouded in darkness, call out to God for help. Indeed, in this framework it is God who "helps" us and who provides us with the light we so desire. Yet, R. Shalom Noach promises that the one who seeks this light, who applies him/herself to finding it, will indeed experience "and there was light". That is because that light is always present, and it is always functioning in us. We could not survive if it were not so. When we turn to God, that is, when we direct our hearts and minds toward clarity of awareness, we turn toward that which is in us already. We connect with the truth that is there in us, annulling the duality, traversing the gap between body and soul, between earth and heaven, between human and divinity. We experience light not because it is "given" to us (or could be withheld), but because it (like God, in our soul) is always present in us.
Our prayer, "God, let there be light!" is as much appeal for help as it is an acknowledgement of our deepest desire. It serves as the energy we must bring to our spiritual practice, sustaining our practice in devotion, holding our intention with clarity to sustain our effort. When we pray in this manner, we can be assured: there will be light.
| ||Thank you |
Thank you for taking time out of your day to be with us again this week. I look forward to studying with you this year as we engage with Netivot Shalom, the teachings of R. Shalom Noach Berezovsky z"l, the Slonimer rebbe, as teacher and companion in deepening our spiritual lives.